Normal Singapore-China ties can also be strong and beneficial

Being treated as a 'normal' country by China may be good for bilateral ties

BEIJING • Without doubt, Singapore and China were at pains this week to tell the world that their relationship was back on track after a rough patch last year over the South China Sea and Taiwan.

At a press conference on Monday in Beijing after his meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said: "China- Singapore relations are in good working order. They are strong, with the potential to grow even stronger."

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, for his part, said: "We had in-depth talks and reached a lot of consensus on bilateral, regional issues and shared interests.

"Both of us are of the view that, against the background of a backlash against globalisation, China and Singapore, as the champions of regional integration, need to work together to address challenges and uphold common interests."

Separately at their meeting later that day, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, a senior politician in charge of foreign affairs, told Dr Balakrishnan: "Your visit certainly reflects the high importance that the Government of Singapore attaches to its relations with China. We on the Chinese side also highly value our relations with Singapore."

Yet, as a sign that challenges lie ahead for the two countries in maintaining the close ties that they have enjoyed since the late 1970s, two Chinese newspapers pointed out how differences and misperceptions, and the attendant actions, have rocked the relationship, with one suggesting that China change its approach to the relationship.

The China Daily, China's largest English-language newspaper, in an editorial on Tuesday struck a positive note, saying Dr Balakrishnan's visit was a "precious step" forward in the repairing of ties. It added that a memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative signed by the two countries last month "underscored the resilience of their ties".

However, in the editorial titled "Singapore should not be diverted from right course", it also noted that recent glitches in ties "have displayed Singapore's misinterpretations of China's intentions".

At the same time, it added that while Singapore has legitimate interests that differ from or even contradict China's, this "does not mean it has any reason to help others hurt China's core interests".

The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid, was more direct in its editorial that appeared on both its English-language and Chinese-language websites.

The editorial that appeared on the day of Dr Balakrishnan's official meetings on Monday laid the blame for the cooling of ties last year squarely at Singapore's door.

The chill in ties, it said, was due to Singapore's "siding with the US and Japan regarding the South China Sea issue". This, it added, was exacerbated by the detention in Hong Kong of nine armoured vehicles of Singapore. These vehicles had been used in military exercises in Taiwan.

Noting that Singapore has long faced the difficulty of balancing between China and the United States alongside China's rise, it said: "As the country tries its best to strike a balance between the two sides, it tilts towards the US when a balance is impossible."

As examples of that tilt, it cited what it sees as Singapore's support for the South China Sea arbitration case against China brought by the Philippines and the Republic's opening of its military base to the US' anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft for patrols over the disputed waterway .

While it affirmed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's support for the Belt and Road Initiative, it added that Singapore will inevitably vacillate between China and the US. It concluded that China needs to take a "normal attitude" towards Singapore's swinging between the two powers.

There is no need to try too hard to get Singapore to be friendlier towards China or be too worked up by this issue, said the editorial.

After all, with fewer officials going to Singapore for training, the island Republic's influence on China is on the wane, said the paper.

There appears to be an intimation here that the Chinese should not feel disappointed or angry if Singapore - which has a Chinese majority and has been regarded by the Chinese people as "kith and kin" - does not stick up for China.

Neither should there be special treatment for Singapore - the Global Times editorial suggested that Beijing should send lower-level officials to the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security summit held in Singapore, as it is "a platform Singapore built for the US and Japan, and China has no reason to show support to it".

This may feel like a hard pill for Singapore to swallow, but it is possibly a trend it has to accept - and not entirely negative if the Republic manages it right.

Singapore's officials have often stressed that while the city-state has a Chinese majority, it is a multiracial society and a sovereign and independent country with its own national interests that may not always be similar to those of China.

Indeed, Professor Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy is of the view that the top Chinese leadership understands the need for Singapore to keep a substantial distance from China politically for its security interest. This is because it is dangerous for Singapore to be seen as a little China because "Singapore's major security threat is not the US or China but the countries around Singapore".

And the Global Times has acknowledged that Singapore's choice of balancing between China and the US is based on the fragility of its security - sandwiched as it is between two giants Malaysia and Indonesia - and its need to rely on the US for "the greatest security guarantee".

If China sees Singapore less as a Chinese society and more as a multiracial sovereign state with its own interests, it might have less expectation that Singapore should support its policies. There would then be less anger and less desire to lash out against or punish the tiny city-state when it sticks up for its own interests against those of Beijing where they are in contradiction.

But while Singapore should stand firm on its foreign policy principles - summarised by Prof Huang as strategic balance, adherence to international law and making no enemies - and not bend to the will of any big power, whether it be China, the US, Japan or India, it should also be sensitive to the feelings of the Chinese and have some flexibility in managing its ties with them.

The Chinese have a saying, jiang xin bi xin, to put oneself in somebody else's shoes, and Singapore officials could do this when interacting with the Chinese. This includes giving face to their Chinese interlocutors rather than being overbearing.

There was a time when the Chinese were eager to learn from Singaporeans and willing to take criticism and even ridicule on the chin, but not any more. Singaporeans who have been in China for decades tell me that the attitude now is: "Hey, you are in my country, you adjust to us, not we to you."

China was once poor and weak, but no longer, and it pays to remember that. And the rise of China is bringing it into friction with the dominant power in the region, the US, making it hard for countries in the region to maintain neutrality between the two rivals.

Two other Chinese phrases that I've learnt from living in Beijing and Taipei that could be useful here are gei ta ge tai jie xia - give one a chance to extricate oneself from an awkward position - and tui yi bu, hai kuo tian kong - if each side would take a step back or give way, things will be as boundless as the sea and the sky.

In other words, never push anyone against the wall, but give each other room to manoeuvre.

Where it is impossible to yield, taking care to explain clearly and with empathy for the other party would go some way towards gaining some understanding.

If Singapore manages it right, a normal relationship with its giant neighbour can also be strong, mutually respectful and mutually beneficial.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2017, with the headline 'Normal S'pore-China ties can also be strong and beneficial'. Print Edition | Subscribe